Here are a few quick questions to think about – do you know what you’re supposed to achieve in your organization? Do you know what the people you work with do? Do you feel you and your colleagues have enough information to do what’s expected? And do you feel safe making decisions towards your goals?
These are very basic questions, but they’re very telling about the health of your team. These are the bare essentials that make up your communication dynamics and what enables you and your team to do your job.
The communication and reporting lines in an organization say a lot about how it gets work done and tells a compelling story about the culture it’s cultivating. This can typically be characterized on a scale of “anarchy” to “bureaucracy”.
Here’s how I visualize this spectrum:
The “anarchy” end
The extreme end of the “anarchy” scale can be described as “lawlessness”. It manifests in zero leadership accountability and zero visibility on what people are doing. Anarchy often results from a fear of power structures, and sometimes, that fear makes sense. Power structures sound scary.
In the end though, power structures, to some extent, are necessary. If you have a team consisting entirely of five people, you may not need it as much. But when you scale to fifty, you realize you don’t get as much insight on what and how people are doing. Some degree of hierarchy becomes a necessity.
There is an alternative to rigid power structures, though, that falls towards the middle of the spectrum. Most call it “autonomy”, an ideal that most of modern management aspires to. This is when people know there’s certain rules and standards they need to abide by, but feel empowered enough to make sound decisions on these standards. It’s when people feel safe enough to speak and oppose, but rational enough to make the necessary compromises.
The “bureaucracy” end
The extreme end of the bureaucracy scale is what we typically call “red tape”. It’s characterized by a lot of paperwork with no tangible benefits, long approval queues and workflows (to the point where approvals are done without much actual thought), and feelings of being “just another cog in the machine”.
In my previous job, there was a pretty high level of bureaucracy, but I could see where it was coming from. Some level of it is necessary to have control over the output of work particularly when do-overs aren’t an option. You need “gates” to make sure work is consistent throughout.
How do you know you’re overdoing it? When the cost of the additional effort and time it takes far outweighs the benefit it brings, you probably should scale back a bit. There’s a reason “absorb” is an acceptable option for addressing risks. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the extra work.
Towards the middle of the spectrum for bureaucracy is “structure”. Structure brings clarity and guides how we do our work. Having clear structures for communication and decision making makes things easier for everyone and mitigates risks by defining a reasonable path towards the goal.
Where do I stand in the spectrum?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I often find myself unsure who to ask when I need something?
- Do I find myself unsure if anyone notices the work that I do?
- Am I often clueless about what standards I should be following and what expectations I need to meet?
- Are the people I work with reckless and unapologetic about mistakes they make?
- Am I often unaware about what’s happening in my team and the organization in general?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, you might be approaching “lawlessness” territory.
On the other end, ask yourself:
- Does half of the work that I do end up in the backburner?
- Does it take weeks to get simple decisions made?
- Do I submit reports to five different people who each have their own, conflicting opinion about my work?
- Do I often do work just to comply without fully grasping why it’s valuable?
- Am I consistently afraid of making mistakes?
- Am I submitting reports with cover pages? (Just kidding. Well, partly.)
A “yes” to most of these questions tips you over towards “red tape”. Don’t be a victim. Do something about it.
Somewhere along that nice green patch in the middle of the spectrum is where you want to be at. It’s that beautiful state where you know just what you need to achieve and, at the same time, feel safe enough to work towards it the way you see fit.
I find it’s often my job as a manager to find that delicate balance that incorporates both autonomy and structure into my organization. It’s important to be wary of not tipping over too far out into the ends of the scale.
When your processes start to feel like red tape, turn to lean and eliminate waste. It’s important to choose your battles and choose those that are actually worth winning. When it feels like there’s too much lawlessness, make sure responsibilities and expectations are clearly communicated. Establish standards with your team.
It’s Utopian to think you’ll land right in the middle, but swaying from end to end of that green patch works for the most part.
I’ve been, at points in my career, close enough to the ends of the spectrum to know what each looks like. That makes it easier to detect an imbalance. It doesn’t make it much easier to prevent it though, but as they say, awareness is a good first step. Getting to that green patch – that’s a whole other effort, though one undoubtedly worth making.
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.